International Workers’ Day benefit honors undocumented workers and their families

Edgar Franks gives an opening statement at the International Workers Day Benefit in Bellingham May 1, 2019. // Photo by Zachary Jimenez

By Brodie Pirtle

In August of 2018, 16 undocumented workers were seized on their way to work at Granite Precasting and Concrete Inc. in Bellingham. Eight months later, a number of the men and their families shared their experiences of being targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the International Workers’ Day Benefit at Localgroup Studio on Wednesday, May 1.

The benefit put on by Raid Relief to Reunite Families and Community to Community honored workers who have been deported or faced the threat of deportation. Community to Community is a women-led grassroots organization dedicated to food sovereignty and immigrant rights, and Raid Relief to Reunite Families was co-founded by family members affected by the raid as a way to fund bonds, legal fees and living expenses for the families, Raid Relief to Reunite Families co-founder Marisol Chapina said.

Since the raid, nine of the 16 men have been deported and the other seven are currently awaiting court hearings to receive their work permits and visas, she said. Many of the men’s families have been living without a source of income in the meantime, according to Chapina. 

The event included a panel discussion with the men who worked at Granite Precasting and Concrete Inc. and their families, along with a silent auction and live music. The auction included works from local artists, along with coupons to local businesses.

Edgar Franks, a Community to Community organizer, discussed the way immigrants help build the labor movement and contribute to the fight for civil rights and services. Franks said people need to realize that the labor movement is also a global movement. Franks said there is not enough protection for immigrants, resulting in large amounts of deportations.

“There is a lack of oversight and protections even though institutions don’t do that job, changing this is a global job,” Franks said.

According to Chapina, the men have not been to work for eight months, and they are working through the government shutdown which set back court dates to move forward with the visa process. Some of the men are doing volunteer work with Community to Community, and some of the men are even going back to school to learn English, she said.

Jorge Interiano, one of the men detained following the raid, talked about his experience during the panel. Interiano said when wages were low in Honduras, he risked his life to leave and provide for his family. Before being detained, he said he enjoyed working in construction.

“My heart was filled with joy being here in the United States, and it is difficult to explain how I feel about what happened,” he said.

Laura Noriega, whose husband Julio was deported following the raid, also shared her story of having a loved one detained by ICE.

“It was a normal day, and nobody could imagine what was about to happen to us,” Noriega said.

Noriega said she is unable to work as a mother of five children. She said she was very appreciative of all the donations from the community. 

The last member of the panel to speak who was detained in the raid, Jahn Zúniga, said he had already experienced the deportation a family member. He said he has not seen his father since he was taken away by ICE five years ago.

Zúniga was in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma for five months before being released in January, he said. He explained how poorly he was treated while being detained.

“Humiliation happens when you are detained, and treatment in the detention is completely inhumane,” Zúniga said. 

Members of the panel went to Olympia in March and talked to state legislators in hopes to get information about changes in the future regarding undocumented people being deported. Interiano and Noriega went to Latino Legislative Day to talk to state legislators about lobbying for better protections.

“I am hoping our actions help families in the future, so they don’t have to go through what I am currently,” Noriega said. 

According to Zúniga, he was one of the seven men detained and released on bond. Interiano has court dates starting Thursday, May 2, but some of the other men detained won’t have theirs until 2022, Chapina said. It is a long process to receive work visas after being detained by ICE, Zúniga said.

Vincent Feliciano preforms at the International Workers Day Benefit in Bellingham May 1, 2019. (Photo by Zachary Jimenez)

The Localgroup Studio provided the space for the event and all the proceeds from the silent auction went to the Raid Relief to Reunite families. Boundary Bay Brewery donated alcoholic beverages and Jalapeños donated food for the event as well. 

Local artist Salish Son performed at the event as well. Vincent Feliciano, the man behind Salish Son, expressed how his music is empowering to his community and Salish people that don’t have the platform to share their voice.

Chapina spoke about the next steps for helping the families affected. She said the organization is working hard to assist the families with legal fees and funds.   

Franks reminded everyone at the event how close to home the government is detaining these workers explaining where the detention centers are in the county. “There are three detention centers in Whatcom County; it’s a discipline mechanism that is in the system,” Franks said. 

Franks also explained how the workers are a huge part of the labor movement.

“We need to realize that the labor movement fight is also a global movement,” Franks said.

Members of the panel and organizations that put the benefit together expressed their thanks to the community for their efforts multiple times.

Chapina said anyone can donate and support these families through Community to Community at c2cinfo@foodjustice.org.

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